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Hegemony and its Discontents
Gentle hipster, you may be more familiar than I am with gypsy-reggae pop. But certainly this genre and others like it aren't mainstream in America the way they are here. On any given hour on F.I.P. you might hear Billie Holiday, followed by the Mexican-American singer Lhasa, the Malian musician Salif Keita, and, God help you, Nique Ta Mère.
Of course, Paris has been an entrepôt for foreign styles ever since Benjamin Franklin brought his glass harmonica to the royal court. The city's fascination with Asian culture in the 19th Century helped create the consciousness that led to impressionism. Josephine Baker and the Ballet Russe were, in different ways, major sources of French modernism. But no matter which styles the French imported, their own cultural values remained front and center. This Francocentrism persisted well into the 20th Century. Long after rock made it impossible to sing plucky or plangent ballads backed by an accordion, the French were still at it. (Pace Johnny Hallyday.) Until fairly recently there was a state-mandated limit on how many English-language songs could be played on the air. The idea seems ludicrous now. Though people paste stickers reading "en français s.v.p." on English words in subway ads, it's more like a plea than a protest. This season there are several American musicals in town, and no one would think of translating the songs. (Although I've had a rollicking time reading the French titles to "Officer Krupke.")
The point, in case you wondered when I would get to it, is that France has become a center of stylistic blending. They do it so well in part because it resonates with their cultural history, but also because the current wave of immigration from Africa has produced a conflictual combination of obsessive anxiety and fascination. The array of Afro-based music that passes through Parisian recording studios is a mirror of this mutually ambivalent embrace. It's an agglomeration that sounds neither African nor European. It's something new.
I suppose one can say the same of the music scene in London, but not in that multiculi capital of the universe, New York, where most "international" music passes by unnoticed except in ethnic enclaves. We don't look to the rest of the world for inspiration; we expect to inspire everyone else. And, in music, that usually means drawing from the big four forms: jazz, rock, country, and blues, each of them heavily inflected, if not directly shaped, by African American styles. So central is the black imagination to our aural culture that nothing that lacks its signature seems serious. But many musics take their cues from elsewhere. We squeeze them into a genre called World Music, largely confined to university stations in the dead of night. Nothing enters the mass pipeline that doesn't have that magic American beat.
I'm as imbedded in this orthodoxy as any other Yank. I tear up and grow homesick when I hear Sam Cooke on the radio here. But, as heretical as it seems, I've begun to suspect that the very centrality of black style that makes American culture so dynamic also prevents it from gaining a wider consciousness of the world. This is no way a reflection of the limits of black music. Rather, it's a corollary to the self-centeredness of our political life. Consider the bizarre perception that Barack Obama is some sort of foreign incursion into the American pantheon. Would he dare invite a Malian artist to the White House?
In France, there's no diminution of interest in African American styles, but they exist on an equal footing with every other kind of music, including soulful froggy ballads. It's the melee of all these modes, in endlessly inventive variations, that seems French to me now. And that too correlates with the nation's political life. In French pop one hears what France could become if it got over its hysteria about immigrants. This music points not only to a multipolar world but also to France's role in it, as a mediator of cultures. That possible future is the reward for losing what France had for many centuries and no longer does: hegemony. In American pop, on the other hand, one hears an insularity that can only flourish in a country that takes its dominance for granted. Yes, we rule the world, and because of that we won't let the world in.
As a young clubber heading out for a night of Brazilian-Balkan-punk might say, with a practiced pout, "dommage."